Tag Archives: Gennady Abramov

Imagist Bookstore, Moscow

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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.

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The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.

Children! Children!
Study the polar silence of the night…

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Class of Expressive Plastic Movement studio, Moscow

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There’s a rich history of theater studios on Povarskaya Street. Chances are many readers of this blog know that Anatoly Vasilyev and his School of Dramatic Art occupied the building at 20 Povarskaya from the late 1980s to the mid-2000s. Some may also know that Vsevolod Meyerhold had a studio on the corner of Povarskaya and Merzlyakovsky Lane for half of 1905. That building was destroyed by bombs during World War II. But there was another studio here for much of the 1990s and that’s the one I have in mind – Gennady Abramov’s Class of Expressive Plastic Movement. Yes, this was technically part of Vasilyev’s School of Dramatic Art, but artistically speaking it evolved into an independent entity that took on a life of its own. The success of that life determined its death – Vasilyev was unhappy with the wild popularity that Abramov and his students achieved and he pulled the plug on them, closing the studio just as it was accomplishing some of its greatest work.
Abramov was a former ballet soloist and a choreographer who worked with Vasilyev for years, answering for the movement aspects of some of Vasilyev’s most famous productions, including A Young Man’s Grown-Up Daughter, Cerceau and Six Characters in Search of an Author. They first collaborated in the mid-1970s when Abramov choreographed Vasilyev’s production of – yes – Hello, Dolly!
The idea of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement was to help Vasilyev’s young actors learn what to do with their body when they were and were not talking on stage. You laugh, but stand on stage sometime and then start thinking – “What do I do with my hands? My feet?” It’s enough to drive a sane man batty. So that was Abramov’s job – to keep Vasilyev’s actors sane and teach them how to live in harmony with their bodies on stage. But it quickly became something else – it became a theater in its own right, with a separate audience, rave reviews, European tours and all the fame and pressure that go with that. For the most part, Abramov and his students weathered the test. Vasilyev, who wasn’t doing much of interest in those years, was less successful at handling his “employee’s” success. He brought down the hammer.

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In my more than 25 years of theater-going in Moscow, I know few phenomena that can match that of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement. It was electric charged. It had the feel of something truly new and exciting. It was smart and witty. It was an elite experience, but in an utterly down-to-earth, democratic way. The people in it were talented and cool. Spectators jostled to get in and get a seat, often next to some admiring Western luminary – say, Pina Bausch – who was making the pilgrimage to find out what all the talk was about. Abramov always played the role of the self-effacing, unimportant, random guy in the house. “Me? I have nothing to do with it. It’s all my students. They do the work. I just let them out on stage.” Their shows consisted usually of 10 to 14 sketches, non-verbal, physical performances that were sometimes entirely abstract, sometimes were based on obvious plots – meeting, engaging, parting and the such. Abramov’s physical training helped his young actors achieve a prowess I had never seen before in Russia. These men and women could do amazing things. Take a look at the last picture in this small gallery and imagine Vladimir Belyaikin or Vasily Yushchenko, wearing nothing but a bit of a cloth wrapped around their loins, shimmying up the metal brace in the right-hand wall, then climbing, hanging, twisting and twirling their way all the way across the ceiling on the metal ceiling beam, and then down the other side. It was damned astonishing. Belyaikin and Yushchenko, like all the other performers in their own skits, did it as though they were bits of down wafted on a lazy breeze.
Until the big success hit and the tours began, the performances of the Class of Expressive Plastic Movement always took place in one of the basement studios at 20 Povarskaya Street. We spectators would enter through a door in the building’s archway that led to a courtyard in back. You’d walk down the stairs and at the landing below everyone would kick off their shoes. There were a minimum of 100 shoes strewn in a huge pile for every show. I don’t ever remember having trouble finding my own two in the madhouse that reigned around that pile after shows.
From the outside the basement studio still looks deceptively like it did back then. It has the same hardwood floors and the same white walls that catch your eye as you approach the entrance from the street. Regardless of what I am going to see at this theater these days, I have never once walked past those basement windows without peering into them, almost hoping against hope that I will see Abramov and his students back at work again.
A large number of Abramov’s students went on to impressive careers as dancers, choreographers and movement gurus in their own right. A whole team of them left to tour for several years with Sasha Waltz. It’s interesting, and important, to keep in mind that Abramov’s work came and went before the boom in Russian contemporary dance occurred. It will take someone else with a deeper knowledge of the topic than I to make the definitive statement, but this I know: if Abramov did not kick off the flourishing of Russian contemporary dance, he surely set the stage for it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Abramov and his work – and you should be if you’re interested in Russian theater – you can find several things I have written over the years. Perhaps the most accessible is a feature I originally wrote for Slavic and East European Performance and which I republished in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996. I also wrote about Abramov a lot in the pages of The Moscow Times. You can check the index there for those pieces.

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